In praise of our majority defiant teachers

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
7 February, 2020

After 12 years of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), most Kiwi primary schools continue to ignore its main message: they do not weave ‘Key Competencies’ into what or how they teach.

The Education Review Office (ERO) confirmed this in recent research. Of the 118 schools it sampled, none had reached the intended nirvana state (phase four) in which competencies are 'transforming learning.' In fact, a grand total of zero had even reached phase three. Instead, half were still in the exploratory phase and over a quarter hadn't started.

For the experts and bureaucrats who keep doubling-down on our competency (or skills)-based national curriculum, schools’ continued failure to fall into line is cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth. The NZC was designed to revolutionise classrooms and learning; where it has not succeeded, teachers must be coerced through yet more 'training and support.'

Teachers are right to ignore the curriculum. No amount of support or training will make it work because a 21st century skill like thinking cannot be deliberately taught.

We all want our children to be creative and collaborative critical thinkers. However, in the same way that chasing happiness doesn't make us happy, chasing skills does not make children skilful. Rather, the route to skill is knowledge, committed – through deliberate practice – to long term memory.

Take problem solving as an example. With the growing threat of coronavirus, we are all hoping the World Health Organisation has the necessary skills to solve it. These include identification, treatment and containment. Yet none of these skills derives from generic education. The ability to identify a new virus depends on knowledge of infections, viral genomes and epidemiology. Further, the skill of treatment relies on knowing symptoms, drugs, their interactions and side-effects.

Skill may be a useful word for describing a phenomenon like this, but it also hides the knowledge and practice a child needs in order to earn it.

To gain the knowledge of an informed generalist, children must encounter a demanding, knowledge-rich curriculum that is coherent. For instance, it does not make sense to study climate change repeatedly but never the Fall of Rome. And the curriculum must be cumulative so creativity can grow from the weight of what the pupils know.

The current NZC actively thwarts this kind of practice and teachers who recognise its folly deserve our applause.

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